Anxiety affects 40 million adults, and one in eight children in the United States alone. This debilitating condition is often compounded by symptoms of depression and stress. Although medical attention is the primary intervention, medical care may be complimented with holistic exercises. A balance of personal efforts, combined with the guidance of a medical physician, has the potential to heal at an accelerated rate.
Integrate these five self-practices into your routine to compliment your healing and bring ease back into your life.
Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says that mindfulness meditation goes hand in hand with anxiety treatment. “People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power,” she explains. “They can’t distinguish between a problem-solving thought and a nagging worry that has no benefit.”
The thought of meditation alone may give you anxiety. Fortunately, with meditation, no “right way” exists. You can sit for as little or as long as you want. You can lay, stand, or get up in five minutes and go back. The beauty of mindfulness is there are no rules set in stone. Start where your mind and body feel comfortable, and increase various aspects over time.
It’s important to remember that your mind isn't going to shut off. The brain likes to think; it produces a natural, continuous stream of consciousness throughout the day. The goal is not to turn it off, but rather to take charge of it. Use your mind as a tool rather than allowing it to control of you and your anxiety.
It will take practice but over time, you will gain more control of your internal chatter. Use these five meditation techniques to build your practice, starting with just 5 to 15 minutes daily and working your way up. Choose your favorite method, or switch them up depending upon your mood each day.
2. Positive Self-Talk
We all talk to ourselves. The question is, what are you saying?
If there are thoughts, words, and conversations going on in your mind that create anxiety, you have the power to change them. Ask yourself:
- Where are the words coming from?
- Are they thoughts from conversations you overheard?
- Are they words that have been said directly to you, or projected scenarios that possibly could happen?
Complete these thoughts with positive outcomes. Reflect back on times when you had thoughts of the future that created anxiety, but after the situation was over, you felt more at ease. Typically, the “worst-case scenario” does not happen.
Each day, practice speaking positive affirmations. Not sure where to start? Try this hour-by-hour plan. If you don't believe your affirmations at first, that’s normal. This exercise reprograms the subconscious mind to avoid triggers that start a downward spiral of negative visions. Like anything, affirmations get easier with time.
The subconscious mind is powerful. It has been recording your experiences and thoughts your entire life and will take some time to reprogram. Be patient and realistic with how fast results will come.
3. Face-to-Face Socializing
A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that face-to-face socialization is more beneficial for anxiety or depression than communicating through other forms of media. In a time of email, texting, and phone conversations, choosing to be with people is actually good for your health.
This choice can sometimes be more difficult for those with anxiety, but awareness is helpful. Now that you know it can actually help how you feel, talk yourself into going out when the mind says 'this or that' may happen in an envisioned negative outcome.
Though you may feel slow to join social engagements, typically you will be glad you did. Socializing provides family and friends with an opportunity to encourage you, compliment you, and share stories and feelings. Often just admitting to our friends how and why we didn't want to come can ease the feelings of initial worry or tension.
4. Focusing on the Now
The past and future create most human suffering. The mind has such a difficult time being right where it is. The future is unknown, but we continuously create outcomes with our thoughts. When we are in the now, we realize that we are okay and enjoy life to its fullest potential.
If you are new to this practice, or have a difficult time staying in the now, make it a daily ritual to spend 10 minutes being present:
- Look at what is going on around you.
- Notice how your skin feels.
- Notice how your body, breath, and mind feel without a care in the world about yesterday or tomorrow. Journal about this experience.
With practice, this technique becomes a quick tool for stressful situations. Before reacting from fear or angst, learn to remind yourself that the present moment is all that exists. In this instant, all is well and you are okay.
5. Breathing Through the Fight-or-Flight Response
The fight-or-flight response is a part of the human makeup for our survival. When we are in a life-threatening situation, this response immediately takes over.
It’s called the fight-or-flight response because if you were on a hike and encountered a bear, your mind would tell you to either run or fight. Knowing that you wouldn’t have a fighting chance with a bear, your first response would be to run. As described in this scenario, the fight-or-flight response is triggered by anxiety rooted in fear. Physiologically, this reaction causes a surge of adrenaline, which over time can damage the heart and increase blood pressure.
Take Control with Breathwork
Next time you feel the nervous rush of anxiety creeping in, pause. Take a deep breath in through your nose and into the belly. Ask yourself:
“Am I in immediate danger?”
If the answer is no, continue to breathe deeply, slowly, and through the nose. Focus on the rise and fall of the belly.
This type of breathwork, known as diaphragmatic breathing, stimulates the vagus nerve to reverse the fight-or-flight response. Continue for 10 to 15 breaths, or until you feel yourself relax into a calm state.
Use the above techniques to discern between a real threat and one that your mind is creating as a potential threat. A strong meditation practice, positive self-talk, staying in the present moment, and getting social will help you develop a strong intuition so you can try to stop anxiety when it first sets in. When you identify your body experiencing the fight-or-flight response, come back to your diaphragmatic breathing.
Managing anxiety can be quite difficult, but with these five tools, you’ll learn to strengthen your intuition and hear its calm, reassuring whisper, ‘you are safe.’
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
Discover how to use one of the simplest, most effective tools you have —your breath—to release anxiety and cultivate calm with Breathwork, our self-paced online course. Learn More.